The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State
When Iran makes headlines, it is usually as a result of its conflicts with other countries. Far less attention is paid to Iran’s conflicts with itself, which are still raging nearly 40 years after the revolution that brought forth the Islamic Republic. Despite the images of a monolithic, repressed, hyper-devout society that sometimes serve as a shorthand for Iran in Western media, the country is in fact the site of a great deal of political and ideological contestation. As Laura Secor writes in her new book, Children of Paradise, “Iran does not have a culture of passive citizenship, despite the best efforts of its rulers, past and present, to produce one. What it does have in many quarters is a restless determination to challenge injustice and to seize control of its destiny.”
Secor, who has reported from and written about Iran for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and this publication, has produced a vibrant panorama of contemporary Iran that doubles as a thorough intellectual and political history of the country’s past four decades. She tells the stories of the men who have held power, and also those of the men—and, increasingly, women—who have opposed them: activists, journalists, lawyers, university students, and ordinary citizens who have risked their lives by challenging authority.
The Iran that emerges from her account is full of contradictions, complexities, and paradoxes. The book ranges widely, but it is held together by an underlying narrative of intellectual evolution: the descent of dissent, from the revolutionary thinkers who helped bring down the shah, to the reformists who later sought to liberalize Iranian theocracy, to the contemporary generation of activists who have directly challenged clerical rule and paid a heavy price. Throughout, the book calls attention to how each generation has dealt with the Enlightenment concepts of rights and equality and with the desire to maintain religious legitimacy. Today’s activists and reformers still struggle to reconcile the fundamental beliefs of Islam with the Enlightenment concept that all people, irrespective of belief or nonbelief, are equal and endowed by nature with inalienable rights. The conservatives who rule the country, on the other hand, suffer from no such dilemma: they hold that only true believers are entitled to participate in high-level politics—and they insist that only they themselves can determine who counts as a true believer.
Secor begins with a highly accessible introduction to the Iranian radicals of the 1960s and 1970s who helped lay the groundwork for the revolution—thinkers whose legacies continue to shape Iranian politics but who remain virtually unknown in the West. She focuses on the sociologist Ali Shariati and the social critic Jalal Al-e Ahmad, who were prominent among a set of intellectuals who strove to articulate an anticolonial and anti-Western but profoundly modern vision of Iran as a revolutionary Shiite society. The shah had allied Iran with the United States and had opened up the country to Western influence and money, steps that resulted from and also accelerated what these dissidents derided as gharbzadegi: the “Westoxification” that led Iranian elites to slavishly embrace foreign ideas and technologies. Writers such as Shariati and Al-e Ahmad sought to reclaim an “authentic” Iranian identity and reinterpreted Shiite theology as a revolutionary political ideology, refiguring the martyred Imam Hussein—revered by Shiites as the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad—as a kind of seventh-century Che Guevara. They held that “Eastern” spirituality was superior to “Western” materialism and argued that Westerners could not possibly understand Iran because the country’s unique culture would always be fundamentally alien to Western minds.
By the 1990s, some of the intellectuals who had eagerly participated in the revolution as young people had grown disillusioned.
Most of these nativist intellectuals were religious dissidents. (Under the shah, Shariati was arrested a number of times and ultimately died in exile.) Others were leftists with Marxist sympathies. And some were even conservative supporters of the shah. But most shared one common feature: a rejection of the fundamental principles of the Enlightenment. For pro-regime intellectuals, the Enlightenment concept of individual rights placed unacceptable limitations on the state. For Marxists, the need for national unity against the shah’s tyranny and foreign influences took precedence over claims to individual rights. And for the religious dissidents, Enlightenment thinking supplanted God with humanity and thereby opened the way for materialism, atheism, and the toleration of religious “deviations” such as Bahaism. As Shariati put it, he chose to take shelter in the mosque to protect himself from the noise and dazzle of the Enlightenment, which he feared put mankind on a false path.
But Shariati, Al-e Ahmad, and their intellectual allies were a bit selective about their antipathy to the West: they were quick to accuse their opponents of gharbzadegi while in the same breath praising Western critics of Enlightenment thought, such as Martin Heidegger and Michel Foucault, and adapting their ideas to the Iranian context. Indeed, the philosopher Ahmad Fardid, who coined the term gharbzadegi and later became a champion of Iranian Islamism, started out as a monarchist and right-wing Heideggerian. Such tensions in Iranian revolutionary thought would become only more pronounced after the shah fled Iran and his chief antagonist, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, returned from exile and replaced the shah’s monarchy with a theocratic system headed by himself.
After Khomeini took power, he quickly sidelined the leftists and secularists who had joined forces with the Islamists to oppose the shah’s regime. It soon became clear that under Khomeini, the Islamic Republic would not usher in the rule of the intelligentsia, as Shariati and other dissidents had hoped and expected. Rather, Khomeini’s new constitution institutionalized the concept of velayat-e faqih, the divine right of the clergy to rule.
By the 1990s, some of the intellectuals who had eagerly participated in the revolution as young people had grown disillusioned, as the clerics and security forces maintained an ever-firmer grip on Iranian society and politics. This set of former revolutionaries began to turn away from the old discourse and search for a new language to articulate their demands and grievances, hoping that this might be the first step toward reforming the system. Theorists and activists who had once promoted ideas such as gharbzadegi, khesh (roots), shahed (martyrdom), and towhid (solidarity) now hailed demokrasi, azadi (liberty), barabari (equality), huquq-e beshar (human rights), jameh-e madani (civil society), and shahrvandi (a newly coined termed meaning “citizenship”). These intellectuals became known as “the new Islamic thinkers,” and they represented a repudiation of the earlier line of revolutionary thought: one of them, Akbar Ganji, even declared that Shariati’s work should be relegated to a museum.
The leading figure among the new Islamic thinkers was Abdolkarim Soroush. In the 1970s, Soroush was a young admirer of Shariati, doing his graduate studies in chemistry and philosophy in the United Kingdom. His writings on science and religion got the attention of many revolutionaries and dissidents, including Khomeini himself. Soroush returned to Iran in 1979, after the revolution, and soon thereafter, Khomeini appointed him to a committee charged with carrying out an Islamic “cultural revolution” in higher education (modeled in part on the campaign that Mao Zedong had earlier launched in China) that would rid Iran’s universities of Western influences. But once Soroush realized that the clergy had no intention of sharing power with others, especially with reformist intellectuals, he shifted gears, eschewing radical Islamism in favor of a vision more in tune with liberalism. By the mid-1990s, he had become a target for militant conservatives. At his lectures, hard-liners physically assaulted him and members of the audience. The authorities shut down the magazine he had founded, Kiyan. He was stripped of academic appointments, questioned by intelligence agencies, and even publicly criticized by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Soroush had little choice but to flee into exile, eventually taking a number of academic positions in the United States.
Secor introduces readers to thinkers whose legacies continue to shape Iranian politics but who remain virtually unknown in the West.
Soroush has been absent from Iran for many years, but Secor rightly places him at the center of the intellectual transformation that has taken place there during the past two decades. He has become for a new generation of activists and thinkers what Shariati was for the original revolutionary movement. Drawing inspiration from the work of the Austrian British philosopher Karl Popper, especially The Open Society and Its Enemies, Soroush has set out to slim down Islam, transforming it from the bloated ideology it became under Khomeini into a religion of personal piety and morality centered on the individual’s relationship with God. As Soroush told an interviewer in 1997, he seeks to purify religion, “making it lighter and more buoyant . . . [and] more slender by sifting, whittling away, erasing the superfluous layers off the face of religiosity.”
Secor sympathizes with Soroush and other reformist intellectuals of his generation. That sympathy, however, leads her to underestimate two fundamental weaknesses of their movement. First, many reformists discovered the virtues of individual rights only after they had lost influence or had been pushed out of the ruling elite, more often as a result of personal disputes or power struggles than because of genuine philosophical disagreements with the regime. Take, for example, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, revered by reformers as a great champion of individual rights. Montazeri, who died in 2009, had been Khomeini’s designated heir until 1989, when, according to reformers, he broke with the regime over its prohibition of political parties and its efforts to “export” Iran’s revolution abroad, among other issues. A more skeptical view is that Khomeini’s inner circle had already started to ease out Montazeri after a relative of his was caught leaking information to media outlets about the secret U.S.-Iranian dealings that took place as part of the Iran-contra affair and that had embarrassed the regime. Only after it had become clear that Montazeri had fallen out of favor did he begin to publicly challenge the regime on substantive matters.
Second, although Iranian reformists have advocated enhanced individual rights, they have not embraced Enlightenment ideals more generally. They freely use the language of “modernity”—their pronouncements frequently feature that term—but neglect the fact that there are many varieties of modernity, including Stalinism, Maoism, fascism, and Nazism.
The main stumbling block preventing the reformists from a full embrace of Enlightenment values are the concepts of universal liberty and equality. The Enlightenment replaced divine authority with popular sovereignty, religious duties with individual rights, and, most threatening of all, obligations to God with inalienable rights derived from nature. In the Enlightenment tradition, such rights belong to all. But most reformist intellectuals have been willing to accept notions of liberty and equality only when applied to “true” Muslims. Mohammad Khatami, the reformist who served as president of Iran from 1997 to 2005 and who remains an influential figure, divides humanity into khody (“us,” meaning Muslims) and kheyr-e-khody (“them,” meaning unbelievers). Even Soroush, the reformist who comes closest to Enlightenment values, tends to endorse the idea of a political distinction between believers and everyone else.
Many reformists discovered the virtues of individual rights only after they had lost influence or had been pushed out of the ruling elite.
Secor writes that for Soroush, “there was no reason Muslim societies should not draw on secular political theories in order to design the best possible state. . . . What mattered was that those who entered politics in a Muslim state have good Muslim values. From there, everything could be debated and contested on rational merits, in the open air.” But that position requires one to determine what constitutes “good Muslim values.” As Soroush learned the hard way, for those in power in Iran, demonstrating “good Muslim values” requires one to adhere not just to Islam but to the concept of velayat-e faqih, and also to demonstrate loyalty to Iran’s supreme leader—all of which flies in the face of Enlightenment values.
This problem of unbelief has plagued reformers for decades. Consider the mass executions of imprisoned dissidents and antiregime militants that Khomeini ordered near the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988. Secor movingly and vividly covers this grotesque bloodletting. The executions were carried out after Khomeini issued two secret fatwas (religious decrees), one calling for the death of prisoners who were moharebs (those warring against God) and the other condemning those who were mortads (apostates). The first was directed against members of the Mojahedin, a radical Islamist organization led by young intellectuals from devout Muslim backgrounds who had waged a dramatic guerrilla war against the shah but had also challenged Khomeini’s regime after the revolution. The second fatwa condemned antiregime leftists and nationalists who had grown up in Muslim families but no longer believed in Islam. The prisons set up inquisition courts that asked inmates whether they identified as Muslims, believed in basic Islamic precepts (especially the existence of an afterlife), performed their daily prayers, and fasted during Ramadan. Those who answered in the negative were promptly hanged.
In his memoirs, Montazeri claims that he wrote privately to Khomeini to protest the first set of death sentences on the grounds that the Mojahedin prisoners had already been convicted of lesser crimes and were no longer participating in violent resistance. Montazeri, however, avoided criticizing the second fatwa, which condemned the leftists and nationalists to death, probably because he did not want to get into a discussion of apostasy, which might have forced him to argue that unbelievers deserved the same rights as Muslims. That, apparently, would have been a bridge too far. If any influential reformers objected to the second fatwa, they kept it to themselves. Even now, three decades later, their silence remains deafening.
Today, the new Islamic thinkers have been supplanted to some extent by a new generation of activists who came of age or were born after 1979 and who can be described as the revolution’s grandchildren. They formed the backbone of the so-called Green Movement that coalesced to protest the results of the 2009 presidential election, which returned the hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to office despite charges of vote rigging. Secor provides colorful portraits of these young dissidents: university students, journalists turned bloggers, and human rights campaigners working for women’s equality or against the death penalty.
The regime mercilessly crushed the Green Movement through mass arrests, beatings, and forced confessions. Opposition figures aligned with the movement, such as Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, have remained under house arrest even during the presidency of the relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, who succeeded Ahmadinejad in 2013. Although the promise of the Green Movement seems to have been extinguished, the reformist spirit is not altogether dead. As Secor’s book reveals, one hopeful aspect of today’s younger activists and intellectuals is that, unlike thinkers such as Soroush, who sought to criticize Iran’s theocracy without abandoning religious thought and language, they seem to be avoiding the discourse of Islam altogether and are instead exploring that of the Enlightenment.
Today’s younger Iranian activists and intellectuals seem to be avoiding the discourse of Islam altogether and are instead exploring that of the Enlightenment.
In this way, the new reformists are emulating a much earlier generation of Iranian liberals: the intelligentsia behind Iran’s constitutional revolution of 1905–7, which challenged the Qajar monarchy and led to the creation of Iran’s first parliament. The constitutional revolution’s leaders consciously avoided framing their appeals in religious terms precisely because they knew that doing so would play into the hands of the clergy, who could ultimately delegitimize the revolutionaries by calling into question their devotion to Islam. Soroush’s generation, in contrast, allowed itself to be sucked into the whirlpool of Islamic discourse in part because the popular mood after the revolution seemed to demand it and in part because Khomeini’s towering charisma allowed him to dominate Iranian politics so thoroughly that it became difficult to participate in debates without addressing religious thought.
But today’s activists and reformists do not have to contend with a figure such as Khomeini, and they are discovering that an increasing segment of the Iranian population is no longer enamored of the Khomeinist notion that “Islam is the solution.” So although the clerics remain firmly in control for the moment, it is unlikely that the regime will be able to avoid for much longer the difficult task of acknowledging and responding meaningfully to the central tenets of the Enlightenment, whose appeal refuses to wither away.